Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Haunted Memories: Disruptive Ghosts in the Poems of Brenda Marie Osbey and Joy Harjo

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Haunted Memories: Disruptive Ghosts in the Poems of Brenda Marie Osbey and Joy Harjo

Article excerpt

Brenda Marie Osbey and Joy Harjo travel in their poems to historic sites along the Gulf coast, where the flow of water and the flow of memory facilitate and sustain a series of hauntings. These hauntings take us to New Orleans and along the Mississippi River, where the slaves Luis Congo and Juan San Malo reappear to have their say in Osbey's poetry, and where Joy Harjo reimagines the endpoint of Hernando de Soto's quest. Such ghostly incarnations, as we will see, allow movement across the Gulf region--to indigenous Pueblo cultures along the Rio Grande in Harjos' poetic imaginary, or to South America in Osbey's extended African-Creole world. In their poems, memory becomes a dynamic process. It questions the legacies of historical figures and repositions them within new poetic constructs that reveal history's wounds while working toward more sustainable interpretations of past practices.

Historical figures themselves follow the flow of memory and the hauntings it sustains. Afro-Creole characters that haunt the poems in Brenda Marie Osbey's All Saints respond to legacies of misrepresentation when they speak as disembodied heads and ghostly presences. The fractured bodies and uncanny appearances of slave executioners, maroon leaders, and slave saints reckon with the way that history has remembered them by taking us back to the colonial past and commanding our attention at the site of trauma. Here, slave executioner Luis Congo, whose victims he recalls as falling "in heaps along the waters of the bayou," ends the poem begging for water ("The Head of Luis Congo Speaks"). And in the watery landscape that surrounds New Orleans, maroon leader Juan San Malo re-reads Congo's treachery in the context of the larger horror that haunts them both, slavery. If Osbey's ghosts seem grotesque in their current state, with their heads on poles and their "sightless" eyes ("The Business of Pursuit"), their broken bodies also point to a history of representational violence that Osbey's work amends. The ghosts' recollections suggest that history has told their stories in faulty ways, and that poetic disinterment is required.

Joy Harjo's poem "New Orleans" also incorporates figures from the city's colonial past, but Harjo doesn't bring the subjects of colonial domination to speak in her work as Osbey does. What Harjo articulates is a way of understanding place and history that makes use of dynamic flows of memory. Her New Orleans is sensuous and animate; the place itself harbors memories of a pre-colonial past that persist into contemporary daily life. Her own memory possesses a similarly palpable flow; it "swims deep in blood, / a delta in the skin." In her poem, Harjo spies the ghost of Hernando de Soto dancing on modern day Bourbon Street, where his appearance signals, as Osbey's ghosts do, the poet's confrontation with a troubling legacy that forgets the "ancestors and future children / buried beneath the currents." De Soto's ghost allows Harjo to crack open the sense of closure that history assumes and recast its figures in terms more relevant to the present and more sustainable for postcolonial Native American communities.

The ghosts of Osbey and Harjo resonate with a recent increase in ghostly appearances in fiction, film, and critical studies. Jeffrey Weinstock identifies this movement as part of a larger critical interest in questioning the coherence and authority of official narratives. Weinstock contends that ghosts are particularly useful for projects that seek to dismantle official narratives because they interrupt "the linearity of historical chronology" (5), making room for the emergence of alternative perspectives that question the way that history has been told. Ghosts by nature indicate a suspicion of the way that histories have been constructed; they reflect "an awareness of the narrativity of history" (5) and open a space for revisions and retellings. In ethnic American literatures, especially as these literatures reconcile with legacies of domination, exclusion, and removal, ghosts allow for a rethinking of history "from alternate, competing perspectives" that question the assertions and recover the erasures that shape official narratives. …

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